Taking on a mantle in the face of COVID-19: By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Taking on a mantle in the face of COVID-19: By Kumudini Hettiarachchi


Prof. Vajira Dissanayake


As the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo, celebrates its 150th anniversary tomorrow (June 1), its new Dean, Prof. Vajira H.W. Dissanayake talks about taking the institution forward, infusing it with advanced technology

1870 and 2020 – 150 years have elapsed but the health issues seem to be the same. It was yaws, a contagious bacterial disease which felled a large number of people in the Wanni then, while it is the highly-infectious COVID-19, which is rampaging through the world including Sri Lanka, leaving a trail of disease and death now.

Similar to the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo, being born to meet the demand for health facilities across the country due to yaws, this august institution stands on the cusp of pre and post-COVID-19 in 2020, with a re-birth being essential to face the challenges of the new order.

As the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo, celebrates its 150th anniversary tomorrow (June 1), at the helm stands the new Dean, Prof. Vajira H.W. Dissanayake, to take his beloved institution forward, infusing it with advanced technology.

“We are at an interesting point in time where basics of healthcare are as important as technology advancements. Going forward, we have to look at basics, strengthen them and adapt technology to meet the emerging needs,” Prof. Dissanayake tells the Sunday Times in an exclusive interview on Wednesday, laughingly adding that “thama weda bara gaththe ne” (I have not taken up duties yet).

He donned the mantle of Dean of the medical faculty with its 1,000 plus fresh-faced aspiring doctors in six batches, on Thursday. At 51, Prof. Dissanayake is the 17th and youngest Dean to head the faculty.

Before going into the intricacies of higher education in general and medical education in particular, Prof. Dissanayake, whose forte is genetics, genomics and biomedical informatics, looks at the impact of the new coronavirus.

He points out that even though, unlike in the 1870s, we have better technology, more healthcare staff and better-equipped hospitals and the response to COVID-19 was good in Sri Lanka, a look around the world shows that many countries had to go back to basics rather than advanced technology.

“In Sri Lanka, COVID-19 brought the reality home that there is a need to develop biotechnology and genetic technology with regard to infectious diseases. There is a need to scale-up,” said Prof. Dissanayake, pointing out that COVID-19 was not just a health system problem. For the health system to respond, there was a need for industrial back-up with items such as swabs, viral transport media, RNA (ribonucleic acid) extracting kits, real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test kits and more, without being dependent on imports.

Urging a strong holistic approach, he underscores the need to move away from import-dependency and invest in technology, biotechnology and the biomedical industry. If Sri Lanka had higher infected numbers, the Intensive Care Units (ICUs) of the state hospitals would not have been able to cope. The country experienced a lack in the indigenous capability to provide machines which would save lives.

“This pandemic has shown us in what direction we need to move in technology while maintaining and strengthening our good healthcare system. The health sector needs to be supported by an uninterrupted supply system for all essential needs not only drugs but also diagnostics,” he said.  Moving onto higher education, Prof. Dissanayake says that with the closure of academic halls for nearly three months, a vibrant online system of imparting lessons needed to be integrated in the system. Some of the universities had digital platforms but the level of maturity required was inadequate.

“We had the technology but we could not deploy it. This is the future and we need to ramp it up as otherwise students would lose precious time,” he said, reiterating that in the long term, infrastructure should be in place to deliver “seamless” online education in any crisis. This would also help open up university places for all students who qualify at the Advanced Level so that they are able to secure a basic degree in fields such as management and information technology.

Although this principle would not apply for courses of study which have a strong practical component such as medicine, such a system would lead the country towards expanding job opportunities. Seamless online education would deliver higher education to a mass of youth, alleviating frustration.

Focusing on medicine, it is with a hint of pride that he says that Sri Lanka is the second country in the world next to America, where the medical speciality of biomedical and health informatics was officially recognized. Over the past decades, more than 200 doctors have trained in this field and spread across the country, transforming the health sector.

Prof. Dissanayake was one of the founders of the Health Informatics Society of Sri Lanka, later leading it for a decade as its President from 2009-19.  Touching on a subject very close to his heart, he says that it was against all odds that genetic and genomic testing was begun by the Faculty of Medicine in 2004. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for widespread availability of genetic testing has become obvious. The next step would be developing Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence based systems to analyze all the data gathered through public health and hospital information systems that are being deployed in the country and genome data generated through genome analysis, to make sense of the data and convert them into information which can be useful in making decisions on policy formulation, resource allocation and patient care.

Prof. Dissanayake looks to the future with optimism – if Sri Lanka positions itself strategically, “we could leapfrog into the future without lagging behind”.

For all university students, he would like to see a future using technology not only for medical education but all fields of higher education, making that transition smoothly and being an example others around the world could emulate.



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